One of the pitfalls of becoming a legendary artist is that your best work may become so familiar to later generations as to breed contempt. Leonardo's Mona Lisa has suffered such a fate, as has Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, Gainsborough's Blue Boy, Munch's The Scream, Wood's American Gothic, Rodin's Thinker, and Alessandro dei Filipepi's Birth of Venus. Who? Remember, Venus on the half-shell? Actually, it would seem one doesn't have to be a household name to suffer such an indignity. Sandro Botticelli's Venus would be a case in point.
Sandro Botticelli was born in Florence around 1445, the son of an elderly tanner. His name seems to have been derived from his older brother's nickname, Il Botticello, meaning little barrel. The name apparently stuck when the younger brother became an apprentice of Fra Filippo Lippi. Though his painting master was a devoutly religious man, Botticelli was best known as a painter of mythological works of which Birth of Venus is typical, along with a slightly less well known La Primavera; The Allegory of Spring. Both have a flowing, lyrical beauty that have since been held up as the epitome of grace and charm, and suffered ridicule when such traits are not always held in high esteem.
Botticelli's life took a dramatic turn in the 1490s when he "found religion" under the influence of Florentine evangelist, Savanarola. The flamboyant Renaissance preacher incited riots in the streets as he went about denouncing greed, luxury, paganism, humanism, and tyranny in a city legendary for such human frailties. When Savanarola was burned at the stake in 1500, a disillusioned Botticelli's work took on a much more serious, even tragic note. His later works were all religious in nature, including The Adoration of the Magi and his last painting, Mystic Nativity. It depicts a tight circle of angels seemingly suspended from a sort of merry-go-round canopy over a tightly rendered, very colourful crèche in what may be the first Nativity painting of the Italian Renaissance. The work has a strangely antique look to it, reminiscent of medieval painting. It is the only painting he ever did which he signed, perhaps indicating it was done for himself rather than others. It's a richly beautiful piece that, fortunately, has not suffered the fate of his earlier work in becoming a self-parody.